A rocket company will try to catch a booster as it plummets through the air, a feat that could usher in a new era of cheaper and more frequent light cargo flights into space.
Most rockets are one-and-done, burning up fuel within minutes and dropping like carcasses into the ocean after putting their payload on course to orbit the Earth. Among boosters that can be refurbished and reused, many have to first be fished out of the sea after an intentional splashdown.
This mission, which Rocket Lab has dubbed “There and Back Again,” is the company’s first attempt at retrieving one of its Electron rockets — a 59-foot workhorse for launching small satellites into space — before it slams into the waves. Doing so will prevent the booster — the main shaft of the rocket — from touching the corrosive, salty seawater.
In the rapidly growing world of commercial rocketry, spaceflight companies are getting creative — and extreme — in their attempts to salvage the multimillion-dollar engines housed in their boosters, the part that gets the spacecrafts off the ground. Rocket Lab’s goal is to have the first reusable orbital-class launcher in the small satellite market.
A successful capture of its Electron rocket would be like threading the eye of a needle, while the thread is whipping in the wind and the needle is darting around like a house cat. But given the cost of the equipment at stake, Rocket Lab would be crazy not to try the aerial stunt, said Sven Bilén, an aerospace engineering professor at Penn State.
“Imagine if every time you flew across the United States or flew anywhere, they threw away the plane when they were done,” Bilén told Mashable. “That would mean that the cost of a ticket would just be astronomical. Nobody would be flying anywhere.”
The capture technique is not a new idea. As Bilén pointed out, in the 1960s, the United States couldn’t send back data from spy satellites digitally, so it relied on a relatively primitive system that jettisoned film canisters toward earth, slowed them down with parachutes, and dispatched planes to pick them out from the sky.
Building a reusable rocket gives customers more frequent access to space, Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck said. The company spends 40 percent of its manufacturing time making boosters, also referred to as the rocket’s “first stage,” and the component represents about half the cost of fabricating each Electron, according to a report published by the company last year.
“It’s all about how we reduce the cost and the time frame to getting things on orbit,” Beck told Mashable. “From an engineering perspective, it’s just a much cleaner way of turning a vehicle around in a short period of time.”
For SpaceX, reusing its Falcon 9 rockets, which have landed on platforms at sea since 2016, also will help it pay for other ambitions, like founder Elon Musk’s dream of sending people to Mars on an even bigger rocket.
To prepare for the Electron booster capture, Rocket Lab dropped a test replica from a helicopter in March 2020, waited for its parachute to deploy, then caught the parachute drogue line with a second helicopter at just under a mile above the ocean.
But the rocket builder will have less control over the capture during the real thing. About an hour before the Electron blasts off, a large twin-engine helicopter typically used for rescue operations or offshore oil hauling, will get into position, flying 150 nautical-miles off the New Zealand coast. Just 2.5 minutes after the launch, the booster will begin to fall back to Earth at a breakneck speed of 5,150 mph.
When the booster reaches about 8 miles above the South Pacific Ocean, a parachute will open and slow it down to 22 mph, making it an easier target for the helicopter to snag. The maneuver will happen just eight-or-so minutes after takeoff, with the helicopter plucking it out of the sky with a grappling hook.
What’s more, the booster is expected to reach searing temperatures of over 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit — well over the melting point of steel — as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket is outfitted with a new thin silver-colored coating, a heat shield to help protect the booster’s nine Rutherford engines during the descent.
As of Monday, Rocket Lab said the launch would happen no earlier than April 28 UTC. For this first try, the team wants to eliminate weather as a factor “so we can focus solely on the catch,” the company tweeted. People will be able to watch it live, beginning 20 minutes before liftoff.
For this mission, the rocket will lift off from Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, to send 34 satellites on a polar orbit synchronized with the sun around Earth. The payload includes satellites that will monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technology, and facilitate maritime surveillance. Right now, the New Zealand pad is the only one capable of launching an Electron, but Rocket Lab will begin using the launch site in Wallops Island, Virginia, as early as December, potentially employing the same parachute-and-helicopter recovery method.
If the maneuver works, the helicopter will return the rocket to a recovery boat to haul back to land for inspection.
But it could fail.
That’s a reality most space entrepreneurs accept these days in order to turn what was previously considered too hard into a routine aspect of business, said Bilén: “I’m sure they’ll keep at it until they get it done.”